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Disney makes high-speed rail ultimatum

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It should be a perfect match, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The state plans a bullet train that needs riders and money.

Walt Disney World ferries 2.2-million visitors a year to and from Orlando International Airport. Disney is willing to put all those people on the high-speed train.

But there's a catch.

It will happen, Disney officials say, only if the train travels nonstop between their complex and the airport, effectively bypassing Orange County's huge convention center and Disney's largest theme park competitors.

If the train stops to serve attractions along International Drive, including Universal Studios and Sea World, Disney has told state officials to forget about putting a station anywhere near Mickey's front door.

If Disney opts out, the high-speed train meant to link Orlando with the Tampa Bay area and eventually connect the state's five largest metropolitan areas, would bypass completely the largest single entertainment complex in the world and lose those 2.2-million riders.

"They don't want people from their park to get on the train and go to other attractions, and the way they're going to do that is to make sure that the train doesn't go to other attractions," said Miami consultant William Dunn, a member of the state's High Speed Rail Authority board. "I think they're going to succeed. I don't see anyone who's going to stop them."

Against all predictions, Florida voters approved a high-speed rail system as an amendment to the state Constitution in 2000. The mandate is to begin construction by November 2003.

The first leg -- estimated to cost about $1.3-billion -- would tether the Tampa Bay area and Orlando over the Interstate 4 corridor. While it will be enormously expensive to extend the Tampa end of the rail line over the water to Pinellas County, that is what the enabling legislation calls for.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg link was expected to be the most serious problem faced during design of the first leg. Then the route controversy developed in Orlando.

"It's the biggest game of poker in town right now," said Christine Kefauver, the Orange County Commission's director of transportation. "You should connect the public airport to a public convention center and not bypass a public facility for the benefit of a private organization. It's just a really sticky situation."

Disney has never been shy about throwing its weight around. As the largest property taxpayer in Orange County, Disney interests expect their voices to be heard on major local issues.

In this case, Disney officials say they are the ones listening.

"We're obsessed with getting feedback from our guests, and they tell us they want a direct connection to the airport," said Marilyn Waters, a Disney spokeswoman.

"Witness that now they come into the airport, get on a bus and go directly to their hotel (inside the Disney complex). To go with high-speed rail, we would be adding one stop at a rail station, where they would transfer to a bus. But for the good of the community, we're willing to advocate a two-tier system."

Disney favors having nonstop service along the Central Florida Greeneway to the south side of the airport. Local officials favor a route that stops at Disney, then continues up I-4 to the Bee Line Expressway, where another station would give access to the convention center and International Drive, and then to the north side of the airport.

Disney insists the Bee Line route would be better served by a new light rail system, and that putting high-speed rail there would preclude light rail forever.

C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the millionaire Lakeland businessman who used $2.7-million of his money to persuade voters to approve high-speed rail and who is a member of the rail authority board, said the route decision will be up to the vendor chosen to build, maintain and operate the system. And he expects that vendor to go with Disney's plan.

"Whoever it is will have to make a go of things without state subsidies," Dockery said. "If you've got a route that generates $25-million more in revenue than the alternative, the vendor is going to take it."

The controversy is a source of friction among those closest to the decision. An exchange of e-mails last week between authority member Dunn and Tom Lewis, Disney vice president for transportation development, got downright testy.

Lewis accused Dunn of ignoring what's best for Orange County.

"Your interests seem to be solely focused on what's best for statewide high-speed rail," Lewis wrote. ". . . You are not thinking about, or apparently (are) concerned for what is best for this community. Let's be honest here. The issue is not about the convention center. That's just the patriotic symbol being used. The real issue is about one set of private interests vs. another."

Lewis also accused Dunn of "trying to grind some ax into Disney," and "taking shots at Disney."

Dunn fired back:

"You are correct, sir. My focus is on what's best for a statewide system. I rely on local government to tell me what is best for communities. . . . I have no ax to grind with Disney nor anyone else, but you will find that I am very resistive to manipulation by self-serving special interests. . . . If anyone has an ax to grind and a self-serving agenda, it's Disney."

Disney has not offered to invest any money in high-speed rail to get its way because it doesn't need a bullet train; it has an efficient contract bus service to and from the airport.

Those who favor a rail stop that serves the convention center and other attractions have sought accommodation with Disney.

According to Kefauver, Orange County Chairman Richard Crotty offered the option of having every other train run nonstop between Disney and the airport. Disney turned it down.

Dunn has offered more.

"I've told them we can get them a train set all their own," he said. "They can have naming rights. Call it the Disney Train. Put ears on it, I don't care. They passed."

Many in Orange County don't buy Disney's profession that it has the community's best interests at heart. But others understand Disney's position. Dockery is among them.

"People talk about Disney withholding riders from the train, but they're not withholding anything," he said. "Those are Disney's riders to do with as they want. They get airport transportation as part of their vacation packages. If Disney wants to bus them, they can. If they want to put them on a train, they can do whatever is in their economic interest."

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who dealt with Disney on the subject of high-speed rail while spearheading a drive to bring the Olympics to Florida, said he encountered the same position.

"Part of it is capturing people on their property and not diluting their investment by providing a way for people to leave the Disney complex for other destinations," Turanchik said.

"When we ask people to be good corporate citizens, it's to help the community, but not in a way that's against their own best interests. I don't know how a publicly traded corporation can be asked to abdicate its fiduciary responsibility and act in a way that will diminish the investment of its stockholders. No one is being evil or vindictive or greedy here."

But Kefauver said that begs the question.

"What you have to ask is whether it's proper for the public to fund a project that only benefits a private entity," she said. "You can't come onto the public dole only for those projects that benefit you."

The dispute is more than a parochial fight among special interests. Potentially, the financial viability of the first leg of the high-speed rail system is at stake.

The rail authority commissioned twin ridership studies, which were released last month. The studies measured potential use of the train over two Orlando routes.

The studies found that if the train followed the Disney-favored Greeneway route, between 1.66-million and 1.9-million people a year would ride it, and it would generate $27.9-million to $29.7-million in revenue.

The Bee Line route would have 1.93-million to 2.27-million riders, and revenues from $32.9-million to $35.4-million.

While that makes it appear the route favored by Disney would be less lucrative, the studies didn't include those potential 2.2-million "captive" riders from Walt Disney World. Those riders would generate another $26.3-million a year.

"Disney is the only party promoting the Greeneway route," Dunn said. "It would be crazy not to serve the convention center. But I'm afraid Disney will win this battle because I don't know of any legal mechanism for forcing them to release their riders, and numbers make the Disney route very appealing."

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

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